Odetta, 1930-2008

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Anointed as the queen of American folk music by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Odetta Gordon, a coloratura soprano, was born Odetta Holmes on December 31, 1930 in Birmingham, Alabama. When she lost her father, Rueben Holmes, at a young age, her mother, Flora, remarried and gave the children their stepfather's name, Felious. Moving to Los Angeles with her family in 1936 at age six, Odetta began studying classical music. After graduating from high school, she attended Los Angeles City College where she study classical opera before being introduced to folk music.

In 1947, Odetta began her professional touring in the musical Finian's Rainbow. Her first job as a folksinger came in San Francisco, where she quickly won over audiences. In 1953, when she came to New York, Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger were instrumental in introducing her to larger audiences. In 1959, Belafonte included her in a major television special, which made her name nationally known. In 1954, Odetta recorded her first album for Fantasy Records. In 1963, she released Folk Songs, which became one of the year's best-selling folk albums.

As an activist for social change, Odetta performed at the 1963 March on Washington and took part in the March on Selma. She performed for President Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised civil rights special, Dinner with the President. Her career blossomed during the golden years of folk music when she began recording albums for Vanguard Records. Odetta has sung with symphony orchestras and in operas all over the world and has been a featured performer everywhere in the country, including the Newport Folk Festivals and in her solo concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Odetta has also acted in films such as The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and has starred in countless television specials, such as BBC-TV's Concert Special, Talking Bob Dylan Blues. She has also hosted the Montreux Jazz Festival. Having been inspired by the great contralto Marian Anderson and having herself inspired such revered artists as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, it is no wonder that among her countless other achievements, her album, Blues Everywhere I Go (2000), was nominated for a Grammy. In 1999, Odetta was awarded the National Medal of Arts & Humanities by President Bill Clinton and the first lady. On Saturday, March 24, 2007, Odetta was honored by the World Folk Music Association with a lifetime tribute concert called, ODETTA – A Celebration of Life & Music at the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Virginia.

Odetta passed away on December 2, 2008 at the age of 77.

Odetta was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on March 17, 2006.

From The HistoryMakers™ biography: https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/A2006.038

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967. Letters to Mrs. Ina Steele [manuscript], 1956-1960. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Inauguration [1] United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Records of, Sojourner, (inclusive), (bulk), 1920-2004, 1975-2002 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Bobbye S. Ortiz Papers, (bulk, 1919-1993 and undated, 1950-1990) David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
creatorOf Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Communications Public Relations Event Files, 1994- Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, The Clark
referencedIn PPC Documents Mentioning John Huang & "Charlie" Trie - Kathy Wallman/Odetta - 12/23 [1] William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
referencedIn Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. We shall overcome [sound recording], 1963. Wisconsin Historical Society, Newspaper Project
referencedIn E-1: Guitar Exhibit - Mrs. Odetta S. Gordon United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Ronald D. Cohen Collection, 1914-2005, (bulk 1940-2005) University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Library. Southern Folklife Collection.
referencedIn Arts and Humanities Awards - 9/28/99 William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
referencedIn PPC Documents Mentioning John Huang & "Charlie" Trie - Kathy Wallman/Odetta - 12/23 [2] William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
referencedIn Records of the U.S. Information Agency. 1900 - 2003. Miscellaneous Subjects, Staff and Stringer Photographs. 1961 - 1974. Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Entertainment: Vocalist Odetta.]
referencedIn The Daily Worker and The Daily World Photographs Collection, 1920-2001 Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
referencedIn Arts/Humanities 9/29/99 United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn FOLK SINGERS IN AMERICA ODETTA United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn Ford's Theater 6/13/99 William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
referencedIn Southern Folklife Collection Artist Name File, 1940-2005 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
referencedIn Langston Hughes Collection, 1956-1960 University of Virginia. Library. Special Collections Dept.
referencedIn NEW YORK NEW YORK #427: GUESTS: ODETTA, FOLKSINGER; HANS KESSLER, HIKING; RAY KNIEWEK, OPERA CONCERTMASTER United States. National Archives and Records Administration
referencedIn American Vaudeville Museum collection, 1845-2007, (bulk 1910-1940) University of Arizona Libraries, Library Special Collections
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf The HistoryMakers Video Oral History with Odetta Gordon The HistoryMakers
Relation Name
associatedWith American Museum of Vaudeville corporateBody
associatedWith Cohen, Ronald D., 1940- person
associatedWith Communist Party of the United States of America. corporateBody
associatedWith Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. corporateBody
associatedWith Cullen, Frank, 1936- person
associatedWith Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967. person
associatedWith March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963 : Washington, D.C.) corporateBody
associatedWith McNeilly, Donald, 1945- person
associatedWith National Medal of Arts. corporateBody
associatedWith Ortiz, Bobbye S. person
associatedWith Sojourner (Cambridge, Mass.) corporateBody
associatedWith Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Birmingham (Ala.)
New York City NY US
New York (N.Y.)
Birmingham AL US
Subject
Civil rights
African American women singers
Music
Folk singers
Occupation
Composers
African American women singers
Songwriter
Folk singers
Human rights workers
Folk Singer
Civil Rights Activist
Function

Person

Birth 1930-12-31

Death 2008-12-02

Birth 19301231

Death 20081202

Americans

English

Information

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SNAC ID: 3236295